Tag Archives: mind

206. Coping with Virus Fears

17 Mar

The rapid spread of Covid-19 virus has triggered fears in many people, and fear can be dibilitating.  I watch a lot of news programs, and I am disappointed to see the promotion of ineffective stress-reduction programs. In my earlier days I was a licensed PhD clinical psychologist, and I am going to briefly present ideas here (not medical advice), which may be of help. There is a general value to learning the control emotions and limiting fears. Here are some important ideas, which are just an introduction to this topic.

Stress, anxiety, and fears have a basic physiological factor, which evolved for survival. The main organ controlling this is a branch of the autonomic nervous system. It is also known as the “fight-or-flight” system, which prepares us for a vigorous defense. This system involves higher heart rate, muscle tension, blood flow changes, sweating, etc.

Fight-or-flight changes are activated by real danger, or simply by fears. Many will notice this activation and identify it as anxiety or stress. It leads to “worry.” Once triggered, the activation (anxiety) can last for hours or days beyond the original stimulus. The activation itself can be stressful and can lead to even more of these changes. (Technically, this is a positive feedback loop, i.e. feedback causes something to increase.) The end result of increased activation can be a panic attack.

Stress and anxiety must first be treated by normalizing this defensive system. Relaxing the body will cause the brain to relax. Starting therapy by working with fearful  thoughts is not effective, because they will always occur when the fight-or-flight system is activated. The procedures involve relaxing many muscles and breathing peacefully.

A “relaxation tape” or therapist can provide instructions for this process. Once a method is learned, it can be implemented in just a few seconds. Also important is awareness (feedback) of muscle tension and blood flow changes. Many people live much of their adult life, unaware of excessive, energy draining, activation. If a therapist is used, very effective “cognitive” discussions can be added later. Also a part of the process is learning to breathe peacefully: generally, regularly, slowly, and deeply.

If a person is presented with relevant measurements (scientific facts) he/she can learn more quickly. When scientific, medical instruments are used, the therapy method is called “biofeedback.” The feedback could be heart rate, hand temperature, a measure of sweating, or blood pressure, usually presented with a changing sound. For example, hand temperature will rise as one relaxes. A transducer and some electronics can convert this temperature into a sound. As temperature rises, the pitch can rise and the patient gets helpful information.

Having taped instructions for the relaxation process is a good way to start. You can go to the Internet and do this search: “muscle relaxation tapes.” Here is a good one:
.                 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86HUcX8ZtAk
After using the tape a number of times, the relaxation procedure can be shortened. Eventually, a “brief relaxation response” can be developed, which takes only 10 to 15 seconds and can be done almost anywhere. Note that these behavioral methods provide an actual, direct cure, while many other methods provide something temporary, which must be used indefinitely. As you learn the relaxation methods, much of the process becomes automatic and less attention is needed. Take whatever actions are required for the virus, and deal with any associated fears in this enjoyable way. Entering a state of peacefulness is a remarkable experience.

 

193. Brain Uploading Ideas are Nonsense

26 Nov

Several writers have suggested that “someday” technology will advance to the point where a brain can be “uploaded” to a man-made computer, where it will be able to function and communicate with us. In some cases, these writers seem desperate to live on after death, by transferring themselves into a computer where they will continue their life. Here are the names of some brain-computer “speculators:” Ray Kurzweil (newsletter), Michael S.A. Graziano (TED talk Oct 2019), Greg Gage (TED talk June 2018) and several others. Most of the “speculators” are brilliant people, who are simply overly optimistic. But a company called Nectome will preserve your brain (“backup your mind”) so that it can be scanned hundreds (?) of years from now (deposit is $10,000). See MIT Tech Rev, Mar 13, 2018.

I am writing on this subject not only to challenge extreme speculation, but because this discussion serves to illustrate the complex nature of our brains and certain technology limitations.

My position is that this thinking belongs to science fiction because there are insurmountable obstacles for this endeavor. It is true that we can explore smaller and smaller biological objects. And computer memories continue to increase in miniaturization and capacity. But there actually are limitations because “matter” has certain limiting features. For example, our units for computer memory are close to the molecular level in size and will soon reach a limit. The speed of computers is limited to the speed of light. Even if we can ultimately reach these limits, it is likely that reliability will decrease. Certain “cosmic rays” and other factors will play a role. I maintain that the laws of physics and chemistry make real limits to tech advancement, that can never be overcome.

I think writers should not bother us with extremely unlikely speculation unless they actually can propose some ways to overcome obvious limits. I could say that someday we will travel to and explore, the inside of “black holes,” or travel to the center of the earth. But there is no value to idle speculation and it only creates confusion for the general public. Companies like Nectome (see above) will collect your $10,000 for something not possible.

Below are some relevant details.

We start with the dificulties in brain scanning. For helpful information on brain control points, see Mark Mayford et al, Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, “Synapses and Memory Storage”, June 2012. For a simpler explanation, see Deborah Halber, Brain Facts.Org, Storing Memories in your synapses, Oct 11, 2018. Also very helpful and fascinating are Google images. Search under neurons, gap junctions, synapses, etc. and add the word “type” like “neuron types” to see more variation. As I was writing this, I looked at “gap junction types” and was amazed by the recent advances in this area.

Here are a few brief definitions:
Control point: either a synapse or gap-junction. It is like a transistor in a computer.
Synapse: a connection between two nerve cells, using chemical transmitters, which cross a tiny gap.
Gap-Junction: a connection between two nerve cells, where the cells actually touch.
Action potential: an all-or-none digital signal that transmits info up to a distance of several feet.
Axon: a long extension of a nerve cell (neuron) that carries forward info in the form of an action potential. The axon is like the wire connecting two telephones.
Dendrites: a short extension of a neuron that receives an action potential from an axon.
Nerve cell body: The cell body is supportive and provides nutrients for the whole cell. It may or may not directly contribute to info passage. The cell body has projections called axons and dendrites, which carry info in the form of action potentials.

The first question is whether you would be working with a living or dead brain. Let us start with a dead brain. In order to extract the brain itself, you would need to cut numerous inputs and outputs. The most important structure removed would be the spinal cord, which is considered a part of the central nervous system. Everything cut away from the brain destroys important feedback systems because the brain is highly interactive with the rest of the body. It is possible that even advanced thinking involves feedback loops with the eyes, nose, vocal cords, major muscles, skin receptors, etc. A cutaway dead brain might say nothing but “ouch.” Any type of brain cutting or sectioning would destroy important connections. Any type of deeply penetrating electrodes or laser beams would be partially destructive and location would be likely impossible. Many systems such as circulation and nutrition would not function and could not be fully studied. The brain emits hormones and is affected by chemicals in its blood supply. Most of these chemicals function with feedback loops and could be vital for  understanding. Scanning a dead brain might be possible, but much of the vital biochemical info would be unavailable. Even if all the nerve cells were available for some type of non-destructive scanning, the extremely tiny control points (like transistors), such as synapses would only be superficially informative. To summarize, a dead brain makes unavailable much vital info regarding its functioning and would be useless to transition to something functional.

A live brain would have all the relevant chemicals and structures, but presents another set of impossible difficulties. Who would sit still for months with millions of holes in his scull for electrodes. Or sit still for laser scanning for months to get all the connections and their efficacy, if this were even  possible. Any deeply penetrating laser beam would cause some damage or produce limited results. How would a laser beam record the efficacy of synapses or gap junctions. Also extremely important is the dynamic nature of the brain. Synapses are constantly changing in efficacy and number, and there is internal movement caused by the circulatory and nutritional systems. There will never be a way to reliably record from this impossible dynamic system with extremely tiny and numerous structures. And even if you could do some good recording from a limited area, covering the whole brain and spinal cord could take hundreds of years.

Here is a summary of the complications of brain scanning:

1. There is a very large number of components, ultimately hundreds of trillions, and sufficient information from all the components would require perhaps a thousand bits of info. The final count for all the info necessary for understanding a brain would be well into the quadrillions.
2. In addition, there are numerous  analog aspects, which trigger action potentials (digital). A synapse will only produce an action potential if it reaches a certain (analog) voltage value.
3. The living brain is a dynamic system in which the control points are constantly changing, due to use and disuse, nutritive and other factors.
4. One would have to work with tiny structures, close to the molecular level. Any prolonged scanning could and would often fail because of spurious movement. A bus driving by, or minor earthquakes, or a scientists steps could disrupt scanning. Blood flow could also disrupt.
5. If you are recording analog info at a synapse, for example, you might need to record for several minutes or longer to understand its action. Even a one-second recording for a trillion synapses would take centuries.
6. Scanning with glass or metal electrodes would cause damage to the brain cells. You might try some kind of laser system, but to go deep into the brain would require a powerful beam and  would cause damage.

For each of, say, 500 trillion control points, you would need the following data to fully understand how it functions.
1. Its exact 3-D location relative to some reference point, like 4.4342343 inches left, 3.4544546 inches right, and 3.66767667 inches deep.
2. A complete description of all its connections to other control points. Could be a thousand of such connections and the nature of each connection must be described, including its location, synapse or gap junction, neurotransmitter and any modifications to synapse efficacy.
3. Each synapse has a pre-synaptic and post-synaptic (receptor area) characteristic, which would take a 1000 or more bits to describe.
4. Gap junctions must be described by their exact location along axons and the efficacy of their connection, which would depend on the area in contact, and other factors.
5. Making sense of all the interconnections, we are definitely looking at many quadrillions (a quadrillion is 1 with 15 zeros) of data bits, probably several hundred quadrillions. It would take centuries to record all of the information.
6. The amount of data would require, probably hundreds of hard drives. How could this mass of data ever be organized and converted into a functioning “computer brain.”

.     THE HUMAN BRAIN IS A VERY UNIQUE TYPE OF COMPUTER

But, let us say that after several centuries you are able to overcome all of these problems (not likely) and you complete a scan of the brain, spinal cord (part of the CNS) and have info on inputs and outputs; all stored on a thousand (or more) giant external drives. How in the world would you be able to turn this into something useful. The human brain is a computer, but it is profoundly different from man-made computers, which are entirely digital and have a fixed structure. The human brain is a complex combination of digital, analog, and chemical operations, which is constantly changing whether sleeping or waking. It has a unique branching (tree-like) structure unlike anything man-made.

You might ask, could we someday construct a computer with the same electronic characteristics as the brain to make transfers easier. I think it is possible to someday build such a computer, but uploading info from a living brain to this computer would not be possible, because connections in this type of computer are developed through experiences (a huge variety of data inputs). For example, in a younger person, every time you learn something, there can be new nerve cells, new axons, and a variety of changes to many synapses. In an older person there may be a few new nerve cells, but there are many changes in synapses and probably other structures.

At this point, you might say, so what; after a thousand centuries, we will be able to overcome all of these problems. Which brings us to another point: Does it make sense to make theories about things that we will never be able to prove. P. W. Bridgman (Nobel Prize winner in physics) says don’t waste your time. Maybe we should leave “uploading a human brain” to the science fiction writers, particularly if you have no special facts or methods to make radical ideas more acceptable.

One more point, on a related issue. Although I assert that complete scanning or uploading a brain is likely not possible, a fairly complete understanding of how the brain works (at the level of synapses) may be possible someday. 

 

 

 

189. Disturbing Thoughts Can be Prevented

5 Nov

I recently read some discussions of ways to eliminate disturbing thoughts. I have treated a number of patients with this problem and have some of my own ideas that could be of help with this problem.

A disturbing thought may begin with something observed in a movie, in real life, or with something heard or read. It is immediately made worse if it induces a reaction.

Here are some examples of such thoughts. I worked with a commercial pilot that was required to sit in the cockpit and do nothing but monitor instruments and watch the skies for other airplanes. His thoughts turned to all sorts of problems like his investments and affording education for his children. It is torture to have to sit and do “nothing” for long periods of time. For some, listening to music helps. Another patient was a nanny that had thoughts of killing the children that she cared for. A man tended to think about all the “silly” things he said to his girlfriends, causing them to reject him. It is pretty normal to have some such thoughts.

Understanding anxiety is the key to dealing with disturbing thoughts. . This is a set of conditions that prepare the body for dealing with attacks; generally running away or fighting. To support these vigorous actions, there is an increase in heart ate, blood pressure, some muscles tense, faster breathing, sweating, etc., all changes necessary to support increased activity. Sometimes this activation occurs when there is no threat, and it can last for days or much longer. When this “fight or flight” preparation is excessive, inappropriate, and lasts for a long time, it is called anxiety. Often there is a circular process that prolongs this reaction. Fearful thoughts stimulate the physical anxiety and the feeling of anxiety leads to fearful thoughts.

It is also helpful here to define thought It is assumed to be some type of brain activity that involves words, feelings, and/or images. Scientists know a little about certain simple thoughts, but complex thinking is not yet understood. Brain actions closely associated with sensations or movements have been studied and are fairly well understood. Some thoughts appear to have a trial-and-error function that precedes difficult decisions. For example, you want to ask your boss for a raise. Your brain will try out different words and approaches and note what “feels” best.

Here are some therapy ideas and methods:
1. Do not fight these thoughts. Allow them to pass through your mind. Accept the fact that certain thoughts may occur for a long time, but usually will gradually have less effect.
2. If bothered by a specific phrase, and other methods don’t work, try repeating the words many times, until they are meaningless. This may take many repetitions.
3. Do a “brief relaxation response” (see below) every time the disturbing thought occurs. This way, the thought will be associated calmness instead of stress.
4. Associate the thought with something pleasant or funny. For example, if you keep thinking about a mistake you made, then associate that with something good that you did.
5. Some people can accomplish these actions by themselves, but many others will need the help of a therapist.

Some people are helped by simply talking about a problem with a therapist. Others will need some physical training like “progressive muscle relaxation” or biofeedback. These physical methods will improve emotional control and will diminish anxiety. A generally healthy method, which can also help with anxiety or stress, is to stretch the major skeletal muscles. Stretching muscles tends to relax  them and will also prevent injuries.

A fully licensed Ph.D. behavior therapist is recommended for the best therapy. Psychoanalysis is generally not effective for the problems discussed above. Methods like yoga or meditation include some procedures that are helpful, but include other aspects that may not help. It is best to find a therapist that has precisely what you need, rather than using more “mystical” methods which will be less effective. For very serious cases and medication, a psychiatrist might be required. If possible, it is best to start with a Ph.D psychologist instead of psychiatric drugs.

The “brief relaxation response” mentioned above, consists of the following. The goal is to relax all major muscles of the body, and to try and make breathing as  peaceful as possible. Muscles can be relaxed by (1) tensing and loosening, (2) stretching them, and/or (3) by shaking (example: let your arms hang down very loosely and then shake them). Many patients benefit from relaxation tapes with instructions, that are available on the Internet (search “muscle relaxation tapes”). Here is a good example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nZEdqcGVzo    

You can also find relaxing music. My version of a brief relaxation response takes about 10 to 20 seconds after training. Begin by inhaling slowly and deeply. Then, exhale slowly and as you do this, let your whole body go limp. The “limp” part requires some practice, with or without a therapist. You can add a quick neck or scalp massage, and be sure to check tension in the back and calf muscles.

Here is a possible program. Start by working a lot with a relaxation tape to develop skills. Use the “brief relaxation response” frequently during a day and before going to sleep. Try any or all of the methods to deal with your disturbing thoughts.

 

 

 

174. Our Education Affects “Reasoning” Ability

8 Jun

I was recently reminded of a problem in education: that children (and adults) are actually trained in what I call “magical thinking.” The reminder was a recent TED talk by Kate Bowler, entitled “Everything happens for a reason” — and other lies I’ve loved.  Many people could benefit from her illuminating piece.

Most of us are trained in various types of magical thinking. Examples are that life has “purpose” and “meaning” and that our actions should be guided by pleasing a higher power.  This is supported by the fact that ANXIETY is so much a part of our biological makeup. We create comforting attitudes to decrease our fears. Like many others, Kate Bowler‘s magical thinking was not questioned until faced with a horrible disease;  she got cancer. The bottom line is that this kind of thinking generally makes us feel better, and so is reinforced, just like we eat to avoid hunger and drink to avoid thirst, we pursue faulty thinking to avoid anxiety.

Being highly educated and logical is more difficult than “magic,” but it also works, and we are not so shocked when bad things happen. My solution is better education, which emphasizes logic and science. Many people have found joy in really understanding how the world works. When you study the origins of the Universe and the origins of life, science helps in understanding these issues. We don’t have final and exact answers for these “origins” but what is known suggests plausible explanations. When the above author, Kate Bowler, was young, what if some authority figure had asked her this question: how can you be sure of your beliefs and understanding of life? Where is the evidence? What are the details? Can we live without unsupported beliefs and just focus on what is observable and logical? (Note, although logic and science are important, I also recognize the role of love, kindness, sports, arts, music and other human factors.)

Along these same lines, I would ask this question: can we really make decisions and think in ways that are truly independent? Or, are we totally controlled by our original structure (DNA, etc.), all of our learning experience, and various environmental influences? For most people, beliefs are learned from parents, teachers, religious leaders, and/or peers — and regardless of events, may persist for entire lives.

 

160. Trump: Early Signs of Dementia

3 Apr

Being an older person and a psychologist, I have spent many hours studying “dementia” and Alzheimer’s disease. First, to clarify, “dementia” is a description of (mostly behavioral) symptoms, and Alzheimer’s is a disease of brain cells that can cause dementia symptoms. Dementia is not a sudden thing, but generally comes on gradually.  Minor symptoms may appear at 60 or 70 and increase with age so that there are severe deficits starting at 85 or 90. Some people never develop significant symptoms. (Recent research shows that a lack of sleep can make Alzheimer’s worse).  Here is a good reference on the whole topic:

http://www.healthline.com/health/dementia/early-warning-signs#symptoms

Also look at “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, By Bandy Lee MD”  It includes  27 essays by psychiatrists who provide diagnoses.

What triggered this blog was an interaction today of Trump with journalists on the occasion of a meeting with a Nato official. He suggested that the media look into the “oranges” of the Mueller investigation (he meant “origins”). He was also confused about the birthplace of his father. These errors, and many others, if you look carefully at him, are consistent with early-warning signs of dementia.

Here are some of the symptoms of early dementia:

Memory loss, especially short-term. An example might be when he forgot the reason for firing FBI Director Comey.

Difficulty finding the right words.  No clear example.

Apathy and confusion. In long speeches the disorganization suggests confusion.

Difficulty following storylines and conversing. Not clear

Difficulty following instructions and finding landmarks.

Repetition is common because of memory loss. This happens often for Trump

Difficulty in adapting to change. One could speculate that changing from a campaign mode to being president was hard for him.

REPETITION AND MEMORY LOSS ARE MOST APPARENT.  Some of his errors may be due to confusion or memory loss — or they could just be lies or poor scholarship.

I think he would consider resigning except that he would then be vulnerable to prosecution for crimes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

116. Brain Complexity

5 Jul

In my Blog-114, I provide some information on brain micro-structure:
“Our nervous system is composed of billions of nerves with around 150 trillion interconnections called synapses, and other connection variations. Further, each synapse (which functions like a transistor) has a complicated and variable structure. The nerve cells, their branching structures, and connections, provide all of our simple and complex behaviors.”

In my study of neuron science, I often see proposals and conjectures
regarding total brain simulations, and even the transfer of stored brain info
to a gigantic computer as a way of prolonging life. One speculator proposes that a person’s intellect could continue after death.

My study of all these conjectures suggests that the writers do not
appreciate the size and levels of brain complexity. My assessment is that
our current and future knowledge will not be capable of producing any
such copying or sizable transfer. Perhaps in 400 or 500 years different viewpoints will be more acceptable.

What follows is a further description and clarification of brain complexity.

A computer has transistors, diodes, resistors, conducting wires and other electronic components that function in concert to provide logic, control,
computation, sensory systems, memory, and information transfer over a
distance.

Analogous systems in the brain are various types of connections between
nerve cells, and elongated cell structures (axons) that are like transmission
wires. The electrical pulse that is mostly used for communication over a distance
is the “action potential.”

I could include, here, a few relevant pictures, but to really see most of
the known variations just use your browser to search “nerve cells” and also
“gap junctions.” (click “images” at top of page). Many of the pictures are
very current and show an amazing variety of structures.

There are two types of connection: chemical (synapses) and electrical (gap-junctions). The terminology can be a little inconsistent but the principles are clear. Neurons have (separate) sending and receiving points. For cells A and B to communicate, a sending point (terminal) of cell A must be in very close proximity to a receiving point (receptor site) for cell B. If the connection is a chemical synapse then the sending point of cell A sends transmitter chemicals across the gap to neuron B receptor. Sending is triggered by an electrical signal (action potential) that causes the release of a chemical (transmitter). The receiving point (or receptor) generates a transmittable signal when enough transmitter is received. Transmission can be excitatory (producing action potentials) or inhibitory (preventing action potentials). Some examples of common neuro-transmitters are acetylcholine, epinephrine, GABA, ATP, and Serotonin. There are about 25 different known transmitters.

Electrical connections between nerve cells operate similarly, except that the
excitation is more direct and transmitter chemicals are not used. Gap junctions
mediate electrical excitation by opening gates that allow the passage of ions.
Ions are tiny charged particles (atoms or molecules) that function in transmission. There can also be transferred electrical excitation without specific gap-junction structures, if parts of cells are making actual contact.

Further functioning (and more complexity) is related to the number of sending points that simultaneously contact a single receptor. A single nerve cell (neuron) could have hundreds of sending and receiving contacts and direct ommunication with many other cells.

Another layer of complexity is that there are many transmitter chemicals and countless substances that can affect the transmitters and the transmission process. Some of these excitatory or inhibitory substances in the brain are there naturally, and can depend on what you eat and your activities. There are also a multitude of drugs that can affect transmission in a multitude of ways.

All animal brains have specific structures and a very sophisticated organization.
Synaptic receptor sites (the receiving points) can have a variety of properties
depending on DNA coding and also actual usage. The extent of excitation by
sending points (pre-synaptic terminals) can be relatively fixed or variable.
In some situations, receiving points (postsynaptic sites) can produce a stream
of action potentials, or just one or two. If a synapse is used repeatedly,
transmission could be enhanced or inhibited, depending on a number of
temporal and chemical factors. Depending on usage, a receptor site could
store information that alters its performance — a “memory” function.

From the discussion above, you can see that there are numerous devices in
the brain that function as “logic.” The brain has common “and-gates”,
“or-gates”, “nor-gates” and many other types of gating to use in programming all of the fantastic abilities we enjoy. Much of the logic used by our brains is similar to that used in our computers. But brain logic has a far greater variation and is
really a combination of digital and analog systems. Information in a computer
is generally a universal pulse of a fixed voltage. In brains, information takes many forms including pulses, graded potentials, ion movements, and the presence or absence of a great number of chemicals. In computers, memory is achieved by manipulating magnetic and electrical properties of tiny bits of matter. In brains, some methods of storage are known and others are the subject of reasearch. It is likely that much of memory has to do with long-term facilitation (or inhibition) in synaptic transfer. There is much research on molecular structures that are altered to provide long-term information storage.

Imagine trying to construct something like a biological synapse with all
the properties described above. Your constructed synapse could have a hundred excitatory and inhibitory inputs, with several different transmitter chemicals. The receptor site should be able to produce a variety of action potential rates and be capable of changes related to memory. Even the construction of one
complete synapse would be very difficult. Imagine trying to create a human
brain with 150 trillion synapses with a variety of properties, AND with an
extremely complicated and as yet unknown organization.

Scientific brain research is valuable and should be continued. But productive
lines of inquiry should be promoted while most unrealistic speculation should be
ignored or presented as science fiction.

How did this extremely complicated biological computer system called a brain
develop? In a future blog I will deal with this question.

4. Consciousness?

1 Apr

Sam Harris is a well known author, who wrote several books critical of religion.  I think Harris is a courageous and excellent writer in that area.   When talking about religion and some other topics, he is logical, scientific and reasonable.

My comments here were inspired by a talk (distributed by email 3-29-12) by Harris on “Free Will”,  based on his latest book. After the talk, a member of the audience asserts that “consciousness is an illusion.”

Here is an almost verbatim representation of what Harris said in response:

    “It depends on what you mean by consciousness.
   What I mean is: consciousness is the one thing that can’t be an illusion.
   Consciousness is the fact of experience. The fact that something is
   happening, the fact that the lights are on” … “Even if I am the brain in a bat
   what I am calling consciousness is a manifest fact of reality, and is the basis
   for every other fact that I would experience.”

This verbage inspired me to discuss in detail, at last, a long standing issue.
When Harris talks about psychology,  he throws science and reasoning aside and sounds more like a preacher than a scientist. In other writings, he promotes religion-based meditation as a method of relaxation training rather than therapy methods developed from scientific investigation.

Here is the problem with his use of the word “consciousness.” As Harris uses
it, it is strictly a layman’s term and of no use in science. One of the most fundamental features of science is the use of carefully and effectively defined terms.

P. W. Bridgman, in his famous book: The Logic of Modern Physics (1959),
advocates careful attention to definitions and the use of definitions that can
be expressed in terms of “operations.” For example, in behavioral science,
you can define “hunger” as 24 hours of food deprivation (with some additional
details). Such a definition is clear and promotes effective communication.  Another such definition is: a “meter” is the length of the path travelled by light in a vacuum during a very small, specified time interval: 1 over 299,792,458 sec. The definition is expressed in terms of conditons and operations. It is universally understood and used in laboratories by physicists all over the world.

Harris says that by “consciousness” he means “The fact of experience. The fact
that something is happening, the fact that the lights are on, etc …. ”   But, where is consciousness, how is it measured? Is it an action, a state, or a condition ??
Nothing is clear about this term as Harris uses it; why do we need it at all?

The definition is in fact circular: “consciousness is experience”,  or you could say “experience is consciousness”, its “things happening.”  Or “consciousness is the perception of reality”, and “reality is what the consciousness perceives.” Many words in common use, do not advance understanding. I have listened to many neuroscientists and biologists lecturing on subjects involving psychology, making this same mistake.

Behavioral science was developed through discussions over the course of centuries, where introspection and other loose methodology was rejected. One of the most important principles of science is that what is observed, must be observable by more than one person, and it must be replicable.  Harris’ instrospection is only observable by Harris, and every person who introspects is subject to this same dilema. Each person who studies his own brain is making the same mistake.

Psychology and neuroscience do better when working with measurable behaviors, recordable speech, and clearly defined physiological actions and structures. Harris looks out at the world using his brain and eyes, etc. and assumes that he can understand a system that he is a part of. Proper science uses clearly defined stimuli, conditions, and behaviors and events, and in doing so, progresses. A group of scientists and scientists in different laboratories can study individuals of a species and make replicable findings.

Although perhaps not the best approach,  Harris  could  have  said  that consciousness is a state in which an individual responds in specified ways to specified stimuli. The stimuli and responses can be expressed in exact ways, so that the word has meaning. A person is “unconscious” if responses are attenuated in certain ways.  Harris basically says that consciousness is reality (as he perceives it).  Although he would deny this,  his concept of consciousness lends support to the idea of an entity –a “soul” or “mind”– that sees and understands that “the lights are on.”  Of course, there is no scientific evidence that this entity exists. We only know that people do and say things, and that their bodies have physiological events.

Finally, when Harris (who does so well in other areas) uses “mentalistic” terms like “consciousness”, he actually opens up the door to ideas like the existence “free will.”  Hard science is clearly deterministic — who knows about the “mind”.